Sermon for Advent II
December 9, 2018
This morning we light the second Advent candle, the LOVE candle. His letter, penned from a Roman jail cell, to the church at Philippi is one of love and concern. He had planted this church during his second missionary journey. In Acts 16 we learn how Paul was called by the Lord to go to the district of Macedonia and found himself in Philippi, a leading city of the district and a Roman colony.
Paul would remember that it was in Philippi that he had cast out the spirit in a young slave girl. Her owners weren’t impressed that her ability to fortune-tell went away when the spirit was cast out. They were angry that they could no longer use her fortune-telling ability to make money for themselves. They dragged Paul and Silas into the marketplace before the rulers where they were beaten with rods and then thrown into prison.
It was here in Philippi where, when Paul and Silas were in prison were praying and singing hymns, that an earthquake shook the foundations of the prison. The doors were opened and shackles unbound. When the jailer saw that the prison doors were open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself. But Paul cried out with a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” This jailer would then ask, “What must I do to be saved?” And they said, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved, you and your household.” He and his family were all baptized. The jailer washed their wounds and brought them to his house and set food before them and cared for them.
It was here that he met Lydia, the seller of purple goods, who was a worshiper of God. After she and her household were baptized, she urged Paul and his traveling companion, Silas, to stay at her home.
God’s Word had done its work in Philippi and it was continuing to do so. Hospitality shown by Lydia and by the jailer was only the beginning of their partnership in the support and proclamation of the Gospel. It did not go unnoticed by Paul. He was most grateful to the Lord for the blessing that these fellow Christians were. They lived their faith in Christ through their actions. They responded to Christ’s love for them in their desire to have others reached for Christ.
What Paul is celebrating in this beautiful letter to the Philippians is the koinonia, or fellowship, that he is enjoying with them. Even though he is writing this letter of love from a Roman prison cell, he appreciates their ongoing support. Every remembrance of them brings joy to His heart and is a reason for him to offer prayers of thanks.
“Approve what is excellent” is one phrase out of this opening chapter of Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Paul wants the people in the church back then – and now – to think carefully about what is excellent. In chapter 4 he writes that we are to think about what is honorable, just, pure, lovely, and commendable. If there is any excellence, anything worthy of praise, we are to think about those things. At the beginning and end of the letter, then he says, we are to approve what is excellent.
There are three anchors of excellence that Paul addresses. The first anchor of excellence is thanksgiving. Paul loved the people of this church. They supported him while he was starting churches or in jail. They sent him gifts of money when he needed it. They remained true to Christ when their very lives were on the line. Paul could count on them and their love for him and one another. So Paul gave thanks for the people there when he prayed. He thanked God for the Church in Philippi because they were God’s gift to him.
Rather than being thankful, in our sin, we tend to grumble and complain about how things aren’t going our way in the church. She sings off key. Their kids can’t sit still. Pastor’s voice grates on me. That group is lazy. He’s a tyrant. Why did they put the tree there? The devil works overtime to distract us from the blessings the Lord desires to give in and through His Church. How our ingratitude must sadden the Lord!
Have you ever thought about ways in which we are God’s gifts to one another? You are God’s gift to me, as well as to one another. I truly give thanks to God for you, for your partnership in the Gospel. I am grateful to you for your patience with me when I mess up. You are gracious and forgiving. I give thanks for parents and Sunday School teachers who tell the simple message of Jesus’ love, that He lived, and died, and rose again for us. I give thanks for ushers and greeters and musicians and servant leaders of different stripes. I give thanks for those who pray and encourage and who compassionately listen to the cares of others. I give thanks for your generous giving to the work of the Lord in this place that enables us to currently be debt free.
I give thanks for your permitting me to serve as a crisis care chaplain, opening the door for ministry in ways beyond what I could ask or imagine. I give thanks to the Lord for the blessing of airing our services via internet and television so that many might hear of God’s love for them in Christ. I am grateful to the Lord for your compassionate care for those in need in our community through the little free pantry and gathering of Christmas bags for students in need.
I thank the Lord for our partnership with sister congregations in sponsoring Martin Luther School where children are daily formed and shaped in Christ. I rejoice in the blessing that we have here at Shepherd of the Valley to host Luther Preschool where children hear of Jesus’ love for them. At their Christmas program and at graduation in the spring, I have the privilege of gathering with their parents to remind them, also of God’s love. This is truly a mission in action right here in our own congregation. I give thanks for our partnership with Bethel Lutheran that has brought four young men and their families to our midst to form and shape them as pastors.
We are also blessed through this partnership to enjoy the beautiful sound of hand bells, giving honor and praise to our dear and loving Savior. When a need is voiced, members of this congregation don’t hesitate to step up and do what is necessary to address the need. We do so as a community serving and honoring our dear Savior. For this and much, much more, I give thanks! So the first pillar or anchor is Thanksgiving. For what are you thankful?
The second anchor is confidence. Verse 6 says, “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” Paul was confident that the Philippians would be there at the end when Jesus returns. He was confident that Jesus would keep them in the faith, in the church, until that great day of resurrection. He says that Jesus began this work in them and that Jesus will finish it as well. Did you notice why Paul is so confident? It’s all because of Jesus.
If we look only at our world it is easy to doubt this word. Can we really be confident that He will keep us to the end? Attendance in worship across the country and here at Shepherd of the Valley is down. In some surveys, the fastest growing group for religious affiliation is “NONE.” Islam is growing, while Christian churches have more and more pews. I’m told that the most popular boy’s name in England is Muhammed, even greater than Oliver or Harry. Many congregations are missing entire age groups like those in their twenties and thirties. Going to sporting events has become more important than worship. As a people, we lack confidence in the Lord and would rather do it our own way. We are powerless to believe. Even our confidence, our faith in Him, comes from outside of us through the Word. So, how can we really be confident that He will keep us to the end?
We can be confident because of how he began this good work in us. It happened with the words, “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” In your baptism you became a member of God’s family, the church. You are His child. Jesus began that, on a cross, where forgiveness was won. God’s Word of truth tells us clearly that Jesus entered our world to rescue us from sin and death. It meant that Jesus took on human flesh and blood to live under the Law. John the Baptist came to prepare hearts, calling sinners to repent and to behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. The work begun in Mary’s womb and through the manger was complete when the tomb was empty.
We are confident and declare that Jesus was crucified, died, and was buried, bearing the punishment of our sin. Because He lives, we have every confidence that we too shall live with Him in eternity. We are bolstered in our confidence as the Holy Spirit works through the Word and the Sacraments, pointing us again and again to the victory that is ours in Christ.
Thanksgiving, Confidence, and now we come to the third pillar of this text in what is excellent. LOVE. Paul prays that the Philippians will abound more and more in love. Love is active. It seeks what is good for the other.
Dr. David Peter is a professor at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis. As a pastor in Central Illinois, he ministered to a man who had been hospitalized for emphysema. Dr. Peter and his associate pastor visited with George on a regular basis. He was homebound with an oxygen machine. One day, when his associate pastor had visited George and was getting ready to leave George said to him, “Before you leave, Pastor, look at that. Look at the wall. Isn’t it wonderful?” Pastor paused, and turned, and looked at the wall. There was a single Christmas card taped to the wall. And George said, “Go look at it. Read it.” So the pastor looked at the card and read the words. It was a generic Christmas card. Then he looked at the source of the card. It was from a pharmaceutical company. It was a mass-printed, mass-produced piece sent out to thousands of people. Yet, for George, this was his only Christmas card.
The associate pastor came back to the church and urged several people to write personal Christmas cards to George. Many did so. His whole wall was filled with Christmas cards. But it didn’t stop there. The pastor then rallied and mobilized people to make regular visits to George. They became care givers to him. Even at his death bed, he was not alone or isolated. There was a community around him. Those who were praying for him. Those who were with him so that when he died, he shared koinonia with God. It was through their witness of love and the Gospel that he had come to faith in the One who had sought him out.
So just what does love look like for us? I think about the last day when Jesus returns. It’s a time of no more tears, no more hunger, no more pain, no more sickness and death, no more loneliness, no more fear. What does God want?
What is excellent? No more tears. Love wipes away tears with an embrace, a comforting word, a prayer spoken out loud, a safe place for someone to talk and rest.
No more hunger. Love gives food to those who don’t have meals to eat or money to buy what’s healthy for their family. No more pain. Love bandages a wound, whether that’s with a bandage or words or simply being there for the person.
No more sickness and death. Love supports research to heal diseases, and then, when death comes, provides support and meals and whatever is needed to the grieving family.
No more loneliness. Love visits, sends a card, makes a phone call.
No more fear. Love protects even when it may put you in danger.
The Philippians put their love into action for Paul. Lydia offered her home to Paul and his traveling companions. The jailer who was ready to commit suicide, who came to faith, later opened his home and fed Paul and Silas. He washed Paul’s wounds from his being flogged. And this church gave money, over and over again. They gave more than they could afford to give to support Paul and his work or when he ended up in prison.
Three pillars or anchors of excellence. Thanksgiving for all of God’s gifts. Confidence in His work completed for us and His using us to carry on that work in our lives. Because Jesus is alive, we have every confidence in His presence and His ability to use us as His instruments. Love… Love shown in our Savior who gave His life for us. Our love shown through acts of mercy in our congregation, family, community, and beyond.
I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, because of your partnership in the Gospel from the first day until now. And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.